All Other Buildingsby Rachel Hochhauser
That night, vegans were coming to dinner.
For three weeks, they were in Rome. Rich had found the apartment on the Internet — small and compact. Four flights of stairs. Nora grew fond of the brass lion’s head on the green door that faced the street. At home, she had a pantry, neatly stocked and ordered shelves, and an electric can opener. Here, just a bottle of olive oil and a box of salt. A good set of silverware, and four linen napkins, pristine and rolled and set in a drawer. Brand new, and Nora had felt, poking through the apartment on their first morning, the whitest napkins she’d ever seen.
“A vegan. Just one. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of it,” her husband told her from the couch that faced the kitchen. Fifty-nine and still handsome. He’d picked the apartment without consultation, and they’d arrived to find a layout that stacked upon itself. A leaky shower. Frayed airport paperbacks on the bookshelves, and Descartes.
“I already started the veal.” She stood next to the sink. It was evening, and summer, the light unending. “I wish you would have said something earlier.”
“Make the meat for the rest of us.”
“I’m going to.”
“He’s not expecting a lentil loaf.”
“Rich.” Nora looked down at the stainless steel washboard. A melon unopened on the counter. She imagined her husband appeared self-amused.
“Pastas, olive oil, vegetables. Italy is a fantastic place for a vegan.” He waited before adding, “Hai Capito?”
“You say ho capito.” He had been studying the language, spending a half hour each day repeating himself — mi chiamo, mi chiamo — in low tones. “It means, ‘I understand.’”
On the plane ride over, there had been a mistake with the computer and Nora had found herself seated alone amongst a group of seventeen, all angry about the swip-swap. The woman next to her — she had an American flag badge on her purse — explained: they were cousins, sharing a house in Tuscany. For some, it was their first time out of the country.
“Flying makes me nervous,” the woman had said.
“You’ll be fine,” Nora told her.
“Don,” the woman nodded at her husband, now seated across the aisle, “knows the Heimlich and medical things. We’re all diabetic. I use bagels to hold me over.”
Nora nodded, and smiled. An acknowledgment of sorts.
“Is this your first time in Italy?” the woman asked. They had not yet left the tarmac.
“Yes,” Nora said. “I mean no. I went years ago. My husband and I usually go somewhere with his family, but this year…” She found herself explaining that their daughter wasn’t with them, so they had decided to do something different. Maddie had just graduated law school and was doing her own thing. Maddie would find out if she passed the bar in November. Maddie, Nora said, wouldn’t join them on the trip, but it was a good, because it really gave her and her husband a chance to spend some time together. Then, she had taken a sleeping pill and turned her face away.
Now, a week later, when Nora struggled with Rich’s Italian phrases, or had to ask the vegetable vendor to repeat the price, or resigned herself to the scorn — from within and from others — that came alongside the disorientation of a tourist, she would think of that group of seventeen, somewhere in Tuscany. The day before, she’d asked a Roman for help and the woman had sent her walking an hour in the wrong direction.
“No. No ho capito,” she told her husband. “Jerry didn’t use to be a vegan.” Jerry, Nora recalled, used to man the barbecue on holidays and during the football games they had watched at his house. Jerry used to be married to Anne.
The four of them — Rich and Nora and Jerry and Anne — had known each other for years. When the kids were young, they had split the sitter but never the check. Now, Jerry was in Italy at the same time with his new girlfriend and Rich had invited them to dinner.
They heard laughter on the stairwell before the knock. Then, there Jerry was, out of breath from the four flights, crammed into the tiny landing with Claudia. They dropped one another’s hands, but their arms were still moving apart when Nora opened the door.
She already knew what Claudia looked like — and really, why wouldn’t Jerry make sure a photo was circulated, when Claudia looked the way she did — but she was taller and thinner than Nora had anticipated, with forearms as long and smooth as spikes. Blonde. That was the biggest thing. But Nora was relieved to see maybe not so young as she had expected, though she’d known the age beforehand, too. (Thirty-four, Anne had said. Thirty-four.)
“Who would have thought?” Jerry asked, hands out, palms up. “Us, here. In Italy.”
Anne and Jerry had possessed two adult children, a three-car garage, and thirty-six years between them when their marriage lost its sense of purpose. Jerry worked as a consultant to senior care facilities, and Nora knew that, for a brief time during the divorce, he had lived in one. Then, he met Claudia. One man made young by the surrounding old.
Nora stood aside to let him pass. “Hello, Jerry.”
Inside, Rich offered the couple a drink. They situated themselves: Nora on the sgabello they’d been surprised to find in the apartment, Rich at the table, Jerry on the couch and Claudia in front of the bookshelf.
“What’ll you have?” Rich said, as though there were a full bar. Really, it was only the two bottles they’d put on a high shelf, and some wine. “How about a gin?”
“Sure, sure,” Jerry said. “Claud?”
She took down a volume on Palladio with a shake of the head. “No. I’ll be drunk by dinner.”
“That’s the point,” Rich said.
“Our company’s that bad, huh.” Nora laughed to show she was joking.
Jerry reached out and took a hold of Claudia’s purse strap, pulling her toward his spot on the couch. “We’re on vacation.”
“Okay.” She sat down, bringing the book.
“I’m sorry about dinner, Jerry,” Nora said. “Rich only told me today. But we have other things.”
“I have what I need.” Jerry squeezed his girlfriend.
“Tomatoes,” Nora told him. “And zucchini.”
No one moved to mix the drinks.
They talked about Rome. They’d carried the food up from the kitchen, past the bedroom, to the rooftop terrace, which had a view of St. Peters, and also a smaller church, with a simple tower, that Nora preferred. She’d put the linen napkins onto the table. The sun was only beginning to set, and around them the city was geometric, straight angles of aged architecture and the curved dome of the basilica. Paint flaked from the building across the street. The city was calmly moving: birds, stretching shadows, a scream or call from the streets below. Traffic only a hum.
Later, a crowd would gather in front of the bar on their street. Men would sell light-up gadgets in the piazzas, sending neon objects into the sky. The pleasure here was in detail: Nora had stopped to have a sandwich that morning, and, looking up from the wall she was leaning against, found a fresco in the dome of the archway above her, an aged night sky, the blue still so vivid it vibrated.
Jerry had taken Claudia, he said, to see all the touristy sights in one day, knocking them out of the way, so they could really appreciate the real city, the undercurrent.
“I haven’t had to lift a finger,” Claudia said. “He does everything.”
“I don’t want you to. I just want you to experience it.”
“Yesterday, I tell him my feet were hurting after Villa Medici, and he leaves me on a bench and comes back two minutes later with a new pair of shoes.”
“You’ve got to be comfortable,” Jerry explained, to the table.
“The view up there — have you seen it?” Claudia asked Nora specifically.
“You should have seen me, after I turned the corner,” Jerry chuckled. “I’m running, sweating in the heat, and everything is closed. I must have passed four stores before I found one that was open.”
“I didn’t even know he knew my shoe size.”
“We haven’t been to the Villa Medici yet.” The pronunciation felt round and plain in Nora’s mouth.
“You have to,” Claudia told her. “It’s really a must-see. The whole place really gives you a sense of the country.”
“I’ve been to Italy before,” Nora said, looking past her. On the ledge, there were pots of herbs without labels.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?”
“When I was much younger. With a boyfriend. He was from here.” Nora glanced at her husband, but he was concentrating on the corkscrew and the wine.
“An Italian, eh?” Jerry chuckled.
“He knew people, and we went around. He had a motorbike, but we didn’t use it.”
“Romantic.” Claudia threw her head back, taking in the night, but really it was more: the voices from the piazza and the setting sun, and the dark rim it made along the tops of the buildings as it sank behind them. The tiles beneath them were still warm, and Nora had slipped her feet from her shoes so she could feel the heat of the day.
“It was nothing,” she told the table. But it hadn’t been. They’d stayed in a castle. A five-star hotel. The old fortress had been falling apart and a Milanese woman had bought it and put the stones back together, Indonesian furniture next to antiques and modern art. The interiors were exquisite, written about in magazines. Nora had woken the first morning to find blood on the ivory sheets. Her period on the immaculate white. She was twenty-four, not alone, naked. Nico had lain besides her, still sleeping.
“Just one of those things, I suppose,” she added. “Though — I’ll never forget — there was this bathtub, in a castle that had been there for hundreds — since the 11th century, maybe. And it was in this tower, next to a window with a view of all of Tuscany, and the walls were thick and stone. The window was deep, the sill must have been three feet, and the tub was positioned perfectly. When you sat in it and leaned back, you looked straight through out over the valley. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been there before, that I was meant to be right there. That I would return.”
“There’s a right way to live and die.” Claudia was watching her.
“This is the right way to live,” Jerry said, and swept his arm across the view, as if to say, all of Italy. The rooftops and the food and the air and the sky. “And I’ve thought about it.”
“So do it,” Nora said.
“They don’t do business the same way. They don’t do business. It’s as if they don’t care. Especially my work. They don’t send people away, they keep things in the family.”
“Who is this ‘they’?” Nora asked.
“The industries aren’t the same,” he said. “Everything I know and do doesn’t translate, but let me tell you, I’ve thought about it. God what I would give —— to live like this.”
Nora thought about the blood she had woken to at the castelo: there had been something beautiful in the stain, archaic, like a pressed flower. The shape of her most intimate body. She imagined how a maid — tall, thin, in gray — must have stripped the fine linens, carrying them in a basket across the property to scrub the blood in the laundry room. They’d left that same morning. She’d never gone back.
Jerry gestured at the unopened bottle of wine on the table. “Thank God they import to the states.”
“The states has pretty good wine of their own.” Rich reached for the bottle.
“It’s not the wine,” Claudia laughed. “It’s the vacation.”
“I should have retired a decade ago,” Jerry said, and Nora felt certain that retire meant a whole lot more. She could see the outline of one of Claudia’s nipples through her shirt.
“What is,” Rich asked, “the right way to die?”
“Old,” Jerry said.
“This vegan thing,” Nora said. “Is it new?”
“Look,” Jerry spoke to the table. “You meet the right person, things change. I don’t want to be a grandpa when this one is climbing mountains.”
“You climb mountains?” Rich asked.
Claudia was chewing, still holding her fork up.
“This guy I work with?” Jerry continued. “He lost twenty pounds. Then I’m talking to this old man. One hundred and four. I ask him his secret? No meat. None. No meat, ever. He’s Hindu.”
“I would think genetics factors in there somewhere.” Rich passed the Montalcino to his wife, a private affirmation.
“A hundred and four.”
“And even if it’s the meat, think about all the environmental factors. Cancer from your cellphone.”
“Rich,” Nora said. She’d bought the veal that morning, the sun already hot. Back at the apartment, she’d removed the knuckles of meat from waxed paper, browned and braised, and now the veal fell — collapsed — when she took a forkful. Each bite included the sweat of the morning’s walk and the afternoon’s quiet preparation, the wine and thyme and garlic. Rich had done his thing — a church, something about another Caravaggio — and she hers, and together they’d found, as usual, separate pleasure.
Nora turned back to the visiting couple. She wondered if in the lines of Jerry’s face — thinner now, tanned, and perhaps happier — she could find something that had been there before. Was it possible that this outcome for the two of them — Anne and Jerry — had been a calamitous accident, or was there something more and hidden, predetermined by whatever was inside of him? The light had left the night around them. She held up her glass. “I think it’s great. Here’s to many years of voraciously eating tofu.”
After they had finished the osso bucco, the sauce smeared across the plates, Jerry — who’d had the polenta, the salad, the tomatoes and the zucchini — pushed his chair away from the table, to signify the eating was over. He leaned backward, and said, to the sky, “How’s Maddie?”
“She’s traveling.” Nora didn’t look up. She used her fork to move food on her plate.
Rich and Nora nodded.
“Where is she?” Jerry was still looking at the sky, which had few stars — the compromise for sitting within the constellation of city lights that surrounded the terrace.
“We don’t know,” Rich said. When they started dating, he had told Nora that he wanted a big family, but they had only Maddie.
“You don’t know?” Claudia raised her eyebrows.
Nora sighed. “She’s broken off from us.”
“It’s good for a young person to travel,” Claudia said.
“Look.” Jerry scooted back toward the table. Nora couldn’t help but notice that he had put his hand between Claudia’s legs, wedged in between the long straight planes of her thighs. He didn’t finish his thought.
“What do you mean broken off?” Claudia added.
“What we mean,” Rich said, “is that she’s been siphoning from the top of her allowance for years, putting a percentage into a savings account we didn’t know about. She graduates university — law school — with thousands of dollars in the bank.”
“She met a guy,” Nora explained. “And off she goes.”
Before Maddie, Nora had presented herself as a feminist. She didn’t want the swoops and swirls of traditional courtship, the enveloping trellis of a wedding gown — but really she had just been hardened by the choices she had made. Now, thinking of her daughter, she wanted the opposite for Maddie: a man that would take care of her, so that she didn’t have to rely on feminism to take his place. But not at the expense of the rest of life’s pleasure. Nora’s own deceased mother, whom she’d never gotten along with well, had viewed the boundaries of the home as the boundaries of her life. And there were details — the smell of an old sponge, for one — that Nora had never disassociated from her parent. A woman who couldn’t pump her own gas.
Nora looked out at the night once more — Italy, vacation, romance pulsed around them — and thought about the two female bookends of her life. These women cupped her existence.
“Kids will be kids,” Jerry offered.
“She had a job lined up,” Rich said.
“The whole thing,” Nora confirmed.
“She summers at a firm, a prestigious firm, gets an offer, goes through three years of law school, we’re paying the entire time, studies for the bar, we foot the bill, and then takes off, disappears into the sunset, leaves the job, her entire life, hanging.”
“You’re angry with her?” Claudia asked.
“No,” Nora said. “We’re not mad, we just feel —”
“Of course we are mad!” Rich’s shoulders jerked. “Thousands of dollars into an education, a life, that she throws away.”
Nora looked out over the rooftops, uncertain about what to discard and what to value — the city around them was everyday to others. She began to fold her napkin, matching corners and folding again. “She just left.”
Jerry held up his hands in concession. “If my kids ever…. We went to a wedding last month. They paid for fireworks. After the fire department permit, the whole nine yards, it cost the family twenty grand. On fireworks.”
“She could be anywhere on the planet, anywhere, and we don’t know.” The napkin was tiny now, a compact square, tucked and tight.
Rich sighed. “Kids are expensive. No matter which way you cut it.” He sliced through the air with the blade of his hand.
Nora looked at her husband. She had met him through a friend. They dated for five years, until she was thirty-two, and she asked if he was ready and he was not, so they split up.
It wasn’t that painful. What had been painful was Mitchel, at nineteen, who had gone to another college, and then Johan at twenty one, in Sweden, when she studied abroad, and later Paul, who had talked about the house he would build for the two of them.
What had been painful was Nico, leaving Nico, not in the moment, but because of everything else. Having the castle as a memory made all other buildings not castles. Looking through that thick window had felt like a finishing line. She’d crossed it too soon. Too young. There was nothing to do about it. Rich had come to her doorstep six months after they broke up, no ring. I’m ready, he said. It might have been raining out, but that didn’t matter. Romance was not their bag.
Nora stood from the table, pushing the heavy iron chair away with the backside of her bare legs. Her squared napkin fell to the ground and unfolded.
“What?” Rich said, in response to her sudden movement. Nora looked at him, then at Jerry, his hand back between Claudia’s legs. He had gamed the system, reneging on a contract they had all made with the future.
“Maybe, it’s a good thing,” she said. “What Maddie is doing.”
“What do you mean?” her husband asked. “How could it be a good thing?”
“An opportunity,” Nora said, quietly.
“Yes, a good thing. Maybe it will open her. No missed chances.” She stepped away from the table. “I’m going to get dessert. Hai capito?”
“I’ll help you.” Claudia gathered their plates and the two women went downstairs. Nora left the napkin, the life she had not had, crumpled and unfurling on the cooling tile.
In the kitchen, she cut open the melon. The seeds came out, clinging to the knife like insects. Claudia scraped leftover bones into the garbage.
“He — Jerry — wants to live forever,” she said.
“I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
“The eternal question. Live well or live long.”
“Long and well if I can help it.” Nora cut wedges of wet cantaloupe and removed the rind. She asked, “Do you have children?” though she already knew the answer.
“No.” Claudia moved to rinse the plates, turning on the faucet. Water came out with force, splashing both of them.
“Leave it,” Nora told her. She looked out the window and saw only the building across the street. More shutters, windows, iron grills. “The sink always does that. It makes me feel stupid, being here. The plumbing. Like I am trying to force an understanding out of this city. I can’t take a shower without covering the floor with water. I’d like to know what I have done wrong.”
She left the mess — juice, seeds, rind — in a pile, and Claudia followed her back upstairs.
As they climbed, Nora missed one of the steps. She felt the collective gasp, from both herself and Claudia behind her, as her foot slipped, a jerking ungraceful stumble. She found the ledge, but a single slice of melon fell off the edge of the plate and hit the concrete with a soft smack.
“Oh!” Nora said, without relief. Claudia bent down and picked the piece up, dangling it between her fingers. Nora looked at her, hairless arm extended, the clean lines of her shirt. The nipples. Reasons but not reason a man might fall in love. But then again, Nora wondered, what did reason have to do with happiness and white linens, the intimate architecture of lives not lived.
“What do you do, wax them?” she asked.
“Nothing.” Nora continued up the stairs.